Disclaimer: I have seen this kind of question come up many times in discussions, and I wanted to do a bit of a study to see if the counsel (and I'm thinking more along the lines of doctrinal underpinnings) really has changed that much.
I want to make clear (although I hope it goes without saying) that these posts should not be understood as official interpretation, or the final word, or even all that is said. I just included some of the things I found in my study that I thought were relevant and important. Your own personal study on the topic might lead you to focus on different things, of course. And, of course, your opinion about the answer to the above question may differ from mine.
This topic comes up once in a while, and is one I wrote about last year. The post I wrote before included only recent counsel (which was plentiful!), but given a recent post on this topic (hi, BiV), I have wanted to explore this further, looking at past quotes in comparison to current quotes, so since it has been brought up again elsewhere, it sort of spurred me to do what I had wanted to do before.
In response to BiV's post, I want to make it clear that I do not deny that there is less focus on birth control specifically, and definitely no specific counsel about only using natural means for birth control. I mentioned this in last year's post. But I don't see this shift as a change in doctrine, but rather a change in some of the specific counsel given. The foundational principles that have driven prophetic comments about the commandment to multiply and replenish throughout this dispensation have, in my view, remained the same. This is both exciting and sobering, as we have a great responsibility on our shoulders to know the doctrine and then true to it. I believe the same principles underlie all of the counsel that has been given over time and that is still being given now.
To me, that also means that the core teachings about what is sinful and what is not have not fundamentally changed. I think it is essential as we consider this issue to separate out methods (whether or not to use birth control) from the doctrine (multiply and replenish -- still in force!) and our motivations (whether or not to follow the commandments and fulfill God's purposes through our choices and how to go about doing that). I believe there is nothing to suggest that now it's suddenly ok to use birth control for selfish reasons (not that I think BiV was suggesting that...this post goes far beyond responding to BiV in purpose), and that there isn't the potential for severe (even eternal) consequences for not fulfilling this commandment. (This was all addressed as recently as the beginning of this month!) Our leaders have expressed concern about the falling birth rates in the Church. I think the message is that these topics of marriage and family are still topics we need to grasp better as a people.
I know this is a tender topic. This post is not meant to create unnecessary guilt or contention. There are plenty of people who want children and can't have them. There are many of us who struggle with health issues that need to be taken into consideration, and these questions weigh heavily on our minds. As one who struggles with this, I do not mean this post to cause more pain for people in such situations. I just want to review the doctrine, the ideals, the principles that we are taught and have been taught throughout this dispensation.
I loved this from Elder Oaks from the recent broadcast:
One of the most comforting passages in all of scripture for me is in the 137th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, verse 9, where we’re told that the Lord will judge us according to our works and according to the desires of our hearts.So, this post is simply designed to allow people to further consider the topic that is so often revisited, to check their understandings and hearts against the teachings of this dispensation (which is something we should do on a regular basis in all aspects of our lives) - not to add to the personal and social angst that exists unnecessarily among members of the Church.
And, of course, I hope it goes without saying that we do not judge each other on these topics, and also we do not berate ourselves for things that are outside of our control. We do our best with what we know and what we have been given and trust in the Lord's promises when dreams aren't yet fulfilled and when life doesn't quite work out the way we want it to, even when we are striving to be faithful and obedient.
This doctrine to me should cause those who have sacrificed to have many children (in the past and in the present) to rejoice in their choices. All of us, as we were recently told, should rejoice when such choices are made by others! And it should cause those of us still in this mode of life to carefully and prayerfully consider the doctrine and discern what sacrifices the Lord might expect from us in the realm of multiplying and replenishing. Sometimes those sacrifices are in having children even when it's hard and frightening. And for others, those sacrifices require letting go of dreams and holding onto eternal promises when the opportunities to have children don't come as they would hope.
Below (and in part 2). I explore past and present quotes to further explore the consistency in doctrine throughout this dispensation.
On Exceptions and Agency and Making Careful Choices
First of all, it may not be well known that there has always been room for choice at some level, as counsel throughout the years has left room for protecting the health of the mother. There are many quotes that illustrate this, but I will include only a few here.
"Ill health may make birth control necessary. A weakened body or actual
disease may justify protection of the mother and the unborn child
against any further physiological burden." (John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations, p.310) (John A. Widstoe was very vocal about this issue of birth control, who was also a strong proponent of natural family planning.)
"As to the lesser sin of preventing conception, no general rule can be laid down, there are so many different circumstances distinguishing one case from another and such a difference in motives that each particular case has to be judged by itself and decided by the light of the Spirit." (Wilford Woodruff and Joseph F. Smith to Job Pingree, Jan. 23, 1894, emphasis added.)
(I found this really interesting, and supportive of the idea that things really aren't THAT different. Even as birth control was being called sinful, the clarification was given that no absolute rule could be established because motives and circumstances DO come into play when considering birth control (and its potential sinfulness -- even for us today.))
Elder Joseph Fielding Smith: “'Multiply and replenish the earth.'
I am now speaking of the normally healthy man and woman. But
that there are weak and sickly people who in wisdom, discretion and
common sense should be counted as exceptions, only strengthens the
general rule." (“A Vital Question,” Improvement Era 1908 October, 959-960)
"The Church cannot give a blanket or over-all answer to the question which would be applicable to all situations." (Hugh B. Brown quoted by Mark E. Peterson)
Using the last two quotes as a springboard, I wanted to take a small sidestep here.
On Rules and Ideals vs. Exceptions
(from the recent Worldwide Leadership Training Broadcast)
"We can add to that that we are teaching general principles because we are General Authorities and general officers." -Elder Oaks
"Now, I hope this helps you understand why we talk about the pattern, the ideal, of marriage and family when we know full well that not everyone now lives in that ideal circumstance. It is precisely because many don’t have, or perhaps have never even seen, that ideal and because some cultural forces steadily move us away from that ideal, that we speak about what our Father in Heaven wishes for us in His eternal plan for His children." -Elder Holland
I'm going to say this often here. Has the rule really changed? Have the fundamental doctrines really changed? Is the ideal different? I submit that none of these have fundamentally changed. The doctrines have been taught, and exceptions have been recognized, which means choice and agency have been respected all along the way, and the condemnation that we read about simply cannot be interpreted as a blanket condemnation of birth control in every situation.
There is a pattern in my mind, a pattern of teaching the rule, but recognizing that there are exceptions. That has been consistent.
Going back to the past for a moment, note the date on this one from Elder Boyd K. Packer, who is often (IMO) one of the most direct of our leaders on topics such as these:
"Often when young couples come, they ask the specific question, “How many children should we plan to have?” This I cannot answer, for it is not within my province to know. With some persons there are no restrictions of health, and perhaps a number of children will be born into the family. Some good parents who would have large families are blessed with but one or two children. And, occasionally, couples who
make wonderful parents are not able to have natural offspring and enjoy the marvelous experience of fostering children born to others. Planned Parenthood involves a good deal more than just the begetting of children. Nothing in our lives deserves more planning than our responsibilities in parenthood. (Boyd K. Packer, Conference Report, Oct 1966, p. 132)
So, again, I ask, is the choice we have really so new? Is the recognition that there are exceptions to the rule really that revolutionary? As such, are we certain that the teachings are really that different at the core?